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New NC education chief talks about testing, teachers, school choice and Betsy DeVos

Mark Johnson is a hard guy to pigeonhole.

North Carolina’s new superintendent of public instruction is a former public school teacher and school board member who says traditional public education is vital. Yet he’s also an unapologetic proponent of school choice, including its most controversial spokesperson, U.S. education secretary-nominee Betsy DeVos.

He was part of the state’s Republican sweep in November, and is joining a lawsuit to support the General Assembly’s move to expand his powers. Yet he insists he wants to use that power to speak for superintendents, principals and teachers.

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“I don’t want to be the guy from Raleigh who goes and tells the superintendents what they have to do. I want to be the superintendents’ guy in Raleigh working for them,” Johnson said this week. “If you give superintendents the support they need, they in turn can give principals the support that they need, and principals can be good leaders of schools.”

Johnson, a newcomer to state government who defeated longtime Superintendent June Atkinson, is preparing to do a statewide “listening tour.” He said one of his early stops will be West Charlotte High, where he taught from 2006 to 2008.

In Raleigh, one of his first meetings was with Mark Jewell of the N.C. Association of Educators, a group that enthusiastically endorsed Atkinson. Jewell, the NCAE president, and Johnson both say they acknowledged areas of disagreement, such as school choice, and agreed there’s common ground on issues such as testing reform.

“He was very nice,” Jewell said, but added that he still has concerns about Johnson’s lack of experience in administration or state government.

“People are going to be watching very closely,” Jewell said. “The jury’s still out.”

Johnson spent 30 minutes talking with the Observer on a wide range of education issues.

On his new role

During a December special session, the Republican-dominated General Assembly shifted power from the appointed state Board of Education to Johnson. The state board, also majority Republican, quickly sued, saying the move is unconstitutional.

Johnson said he has filed to intervene on the General Assembly’s side: “I am the duly elected statewide representative tasked with the enormous responsibility to bring the changes that we need for public schools, for students and teachers.”

Johnson describes the need for change in stark terms: “For multiple generations, there have been students that we have betrayed. I mean flat-out betrayed.”

But he casts that not as a failure of teachers or public schools, but of the system that oversees them.

“All learning in school occurs in the classroom, between teacher and student. If we can focus as much as possible on supporting that relationship then we’ll get better results,” Johnson said. “We’ll make the environment better for teachers and we’ll get better results from students.”

In his first weeks, Johnson said he has been getting to know the staff at the Department of Public Instruction, figuring out how things work and meeting with lawmakers to talk about upcoming legislation.

On testing

“Too much testing” was a major theme in Johnson’s campaign, and the federal government’s switch from No Child Left Behind to the Every Student Succeeds Act gives states more flexibility to scale back.

Johnson said he sees a shift toward using smaller tests given during the year, which can help teachers gauge progress and adapt lessons. He cited the example of teachers who use digital technology to post a question and immediately tally student answers to see who has mastered that lesson.

However, he said he’s not ready to discard the state’s year-end exams or the state letter grades generated from them: “We have to have accountability.” And he acknowledged that some of the things that make those exams so onerous, such as the requirement to have monitors to prevent cheating and hours set aside for all students to finish, come from the fact those tests are used to rate teachers and schools.

So how can the state reduce the burden while doing more small tests during the year? “That’s what we’ll be working to find out.”

On school choice

Across the country, some public education supporters say that advocates of school choice seek to undermine public schools and shift money to private businesses.

DeVos, President Donald Trump’s nominee for education secretary, has drawn especially intense criticism. She’s a billionaire philanthropist who supports vouchers and charter schools and has no experience with traditional public schools. Some of her responses at last week’s Senate confirmation hearing struck observers as uninformed about the public education system.

When asked about her, Johnson didn’t hesitate: “I support her.”

“I do like the idea of bringing someone who was not brought up through the education system to have that fresh perspective on it,” he said. “There’s no doubt that she cares very much for children and wants every student to have an opportunity to succeed.”

Johnson says he supports charter schools and taxpayer-funded scholarships to private schools as alternatives for students who need them. But he said traditional public schools, which still serve about 85 percent of North Carolina’s students, remain the key to excellent education.

Johnson and his wife, Rachel, have a daughter who just turned 4. Before they moved, they checked out Wake County public schools and bought a home in the zone for Lacy Elementary School. They’ll check out options before she starts kindergarten in 2018, but Johnson said “it would be an excellent place to send our daughter.”

On West Charlotte

Before going to law school, Johnson spent two years at West Charlotte High as a Teach For America recruit. On the campaign trail and in his first speech to the state Board of Education, he talked about how that inspired his quest to improve public education.

He talked about teens who couldn’t read and wouldn’t eat breakfast if they didn’t get fed at school. “West Charlotte is a very, very difficult place to be a teacher,” he said, “but it is an even harder place to be a student.”

Johnson said this week that he arrived just as then-Superintendent Peter Gorman was pushing to recruit stronger teachers for struggling high schools. He has followed the news from West Charlotte since he moved on, and describes the public-private Project LIFT effort at West Charlotte as the kind of innovation he hopes to encourage.

Johnson said he’s aware there’s still work to be done at West Charlotte, and he hopes to listen to school leaders for ideas about how that should be done.

“There were students at West Charlotte when I taught that I felt were betrayed by the system,” he said, “and I guarantee you there are still students there that I believe we are betraying.”

On being a local board member

Johnson was a member of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth school board when he was elected state superintendent.

“It was a perspective that allowed me to see the real anger that was out there,” he said. “Anger from teachers. Anger from principals. Anger from parents who want people to stop pointing fingers, to stop shifting blame and to take ownership of these issues and act urgently to solve them.”

Many local board members, including some in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, lament the need to rely on state, county and federal officials for their operating budget. But Johnson says he wouldn’t support taxing authority for school boards.

“The fewer people who can take money out of my pocket the better,” he said.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms

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